Stages of Alcoholism

stages of alcoholism wolf creek recovery

Have you noticed that your drinking is becoming more frequent and commonplace in your life? Do you wonder if it’s out of hand or not?
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition that makes it difficult to stop drinking even when you want to. It can be mild, moderate, or severe, and it affects everyone differently. This means that you may be able to hold things together on the outside while drinking is still impacting you in other ways. Without intervention, the condition can worsen and cause mental and physical health complications.
Here in Arizona, 1,492 people died from chronic liver disease or cirrhosis in 2022. Even a small amount of alcohol can put stress on your liver, causing inflammation and swelling, which can lead to scarring and cirrhosis. You don’t have to be diagnosed with severe AUD to experience these effects, either. Just a few glasses of alcohol each night could be damaging your liver without you realizing it.
Wolf Creek Recovery treats alcohol use disorders in a safe, supportive setting. We want individuals to feel comfortable and at ease, as this makes it easier to open up and expedite the healing process. Since our staff is in recovery, we can offer a unique perspective and give hope to those who are hurting. Let’s learn more about the stages of AUD, what to expect in each one, and what treatment options are available.

Stages of Alcoholism (Alcohol Use Disorder)

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) does not develop overnight. It is a progressive condition that gets worse over time. In many cases, AUDs start with just having some fun, such as wine on date night, drinks with coworkers, or occasional binge drinking with friends. If you have trouble controlling how much you drink or how often you drink, however, it can lead to AUD.
Understanding how the process works is important as it allows you to recognize when your drinking might cause complications. This way, you can seek help sooner rather than later. Since treatment exists on a continuum, you can reach out for support at any stage and heal alongside others who are living with similar concerns.

What are the Five Stages of Alcohol Use Disorder?

A person experiencing AUD typically goes through five stages. They begin by experimenting with alcohol and then progress to regular drinking, problem drinking, and dependence. This does not mean that everyone who uses alcohol will develop AUD, but it is a risk with habitual drinking.

Early Alcohol Misuse – Stage One

In the initial stage of AUD, people start using alcohol in specific situations, such as at a party or when hanging out with friends. A person’s alcohol use in this stage is typically considered social, fun, and a way to unwind. They are not physically dependent on the substance, they do not experience cravings, and they do not need alcohol to function.
Binge drinking may occur in this stage, especially in social situations. This pattern of drinking is defined as having five or more drinks per hour for men, and four or more drinks per hour for women. While people in this stage may not have an AUD yet, their drinking can still put them at risk for accidental injuries and risky behavior.

Problematic Alcohol Use – Stage Two

The next stage of AUD involves problem drinking. Some people find that their drinking follows a predictable pattern, such as pouring a glass of wine every night after work. It’s even common for individuals to develop an emotional attachment to drinking in this phase. This happens because they rely on alcohol to curb boredom, prevent loneliness, and let loose around others. The more a person drinks to “feel good,” the more at risk they are for developing AUD.
Because alcohol use starts to catch up with a person in this stage, they may also experience:

  • Financial or legal troubles from DUIs or DWIs
  • Relationship problems with friends and loved ones
  • Lowered productivity or performance at work or school
  • Emotional or behavioral changes, such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia

Middle-Stage “Alcoholism” (AUD) – Stage Three

By this point, a person will meet several criteria for alcohol use disorder under the DSM-5. They may be able to function at work or school relatively normally, but friends and family might notice changes in their behavior. Specifically, the person’s alcohol use may be more frequent and risky, and they may begin to experience negative consequences from their drinking, such as job loss and relationship complications.
The body also experiences physical withdrawal symptoms at this stage, making it difficult for the person to quit or cut back, even if they try. Getting help at this stage can prevent serious consequences down the line.

Severe “Alcoholism” (AUD) – Stage Four

In this stage, the person is dependent on alcohol, needing it to function or feel “normal.” Dependence involves three components:

  • Tolerance. Over time, people can develop a tolerance to alcohol, which means they need more to achieve the same effects. This causes them to drink more frequently and consume alcohol in larger quantities.
  • Psychological dependence. When a person needs alcohol to feel normal, this indicates that they have a psychological dependence on the substance. These individuals will continue to drink every day even though they know it’s causing harm.
  • Physical dependence. Individuals who are physically dependent on alcohol experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. They usually occur within a few hours from the last drink and include shakiness, sweating, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, and nausea.

End-Stage “Alcoholism” (AUD) – Stage Five

In the last stage, individuals no longer drink for pleasure. Their drinking is a compulsive behavior and they no longer have control over it. End-stage AUD is serious because the body starts to break down, putting stress on the heart, liver, respiratory system, and digestive system. Without alcohol rehab, end-stage AUD can be fatal.
One of the biggest concerns of end-stage AUD is a damaged liver. The liver is a vital organ, responsible for filtering out toxins and keeping the body healthy. When it’s damaged from cirrhosis, it generally can’t be undone. A person with cirrhosis should not drink alcohol. Other potential health complications include heart problems, stroke, brain damage, hepatitis, and an increased risk for certain cancers and dementia.

Seek Help for Alcohol Use Disorder Today in Prescott, AZ

No matter where you are in the stages of AUD, help is available. AUD is a treatable condition that responds well to behavioral therapies, self-help groups, and medication. The recovery process typically kicks off with medical detox, and then you’ll transition into an inpatient or outpatient program.
Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and family counseling are all effective at treating AUD. Through counseling, you will learn about the deeper problems that may have led to your drinking, as well as healthier ways to cope. Getting to the root of your challenges is what true healing is all about. Otherwise, you’re simply addressing the symptoms you are experiencing and not what’s causing them.
Here at Wolf Creek Recovery, we offer highly personalized treatment and housing for individuals recovering from alcohol use disorders. Our extended care program is especially valuable as it gives individuals more time to heal and prepare for the triggers they will face in everyday life. Our clients also get to enjoy their time in recovery by exploring new hobbies, such as exercise, sports, art therapy, meditation, and yoga. To build a life you love, contact Wolf Creek Recovery at 833-732-8202.

FAQs About Alcoholism Stages

What are the five stages of alcohol use disorder?
No one develops AUD overnight. This is a medical condition that worsens over time. There are five distinct stages that a person goes through: alcohol misuse, problematic drinking, middle-stage AUD, late-stage AUD, and end-stage AUD.
When is the best time to seek help for alcohol use disorder?
There is no “right” time to seek treatment for AUD. Help is available at any stage. In fact, the sooner you seek support, the better. This can protect you from moving further into the stages of AUD and developing cirrhosis, heart problems, and gastrointestinal issues.
What happens if I don’t stop drinking?
If you have AUD and don’t stop drinking, your condition will progress. Aside from issues occurring in your everyday life, your body’s systems can also start to shut down. You can also develop cirrhosis of the liver, which is usually irreversible.